The Web Designer's Toolkit What to buy, and why

by Joe Gillespie — Nov 1, 2001

Little Suzie wanted to play the guitar so her kind parents, who knew absolutely nothing about music, took her to the music store. Hanging on the wall, there was a vast selection of different guitars ranging from the very cheap up to ones costing really silly prices. As none of the family played, they chose a guitar that looked nice - and didn't cost very much. The guy in the store played a few chords on it for them and yes, it worked, and to clinch the deal, he threw in a strap, plectrum and a copy of "Teach Yourself Guitar in 10 Easy Lessons."

A couple of months later, Suzie hadn't made a lot of progress. She had tried hard but the guitar strings hurt her fingers and it didn't sound too good. The guitar found its way into the cupboard under the stairs and stayed there.

Now, I have to make a confession. I was that guy in the music store! My parents had a music store when I was in my teens and I worked there on Saturdays and during summer vacations. "Little Suzie" wasn't just one person, she was lots of people and they didn't all buy guitars, there were violins, accordions, brass and woodwind instruments and home keyboards – but the principle of buying a cheap instrument for a beginner is just plain dumb. Even for an experienced musician, a cheap instrument is difficult to play and sounds awful. What chance does a poor beginner have? Had Suzie's parents paid a little more for the instrument, she might be an accomplished guitarist by now, so what they did pay was money wasted and a false economy.

What we have here is the classic "chicken-and-egg" situation. What is the point of spending good money until she can play…?

Should I be using a Mac or a Windows PC for Web design?

Many novice Web designers find themselves in exactly the same situation. Bargain-priced computers, free software, free fonts and anything else they can beg, borrow or steal. That doesn't mean that because it is free or cheap it is automatically bad, all that I'm saying is that because they lack experience, they can't tell the difference. The experienced or professional designers will use what they know to work and the initial price will hardly figure in the equation.

One question I am often asked is, "Should I be using a Mac or a Windows PC for Web design?" My answer is always the same, "Yes!" If I'm pushed a little further, I will point out the pros and cons of each system, but in the end, it's not the tools that do the job, it's the worker.

Rather than go into the relative merits of Macs and PCs, which usually ends up in something like a religious war, let's look at the actual requirements of a Web designer's toolkit.

In the first instance, any hardware or platform decision must be made on the availability of software to do the the particular job. Is there a wide range of popular browsers, for instance? Are there good authoring tools?

Well, so far, there is no great advantage in one platform over the other. The same software, or close equivalents, is available for both MacOS and Windows. The choices on UNIX machines are more limited and they do tend to be more difficult to use, so I'll leave them out of the mix for now.

The first requirement is to have a machine that will run Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator/Communicator. Here, the Mac platform has a slight advantage in that it can run multiple versions of Explorer with ease. Windows only allows one version to be installed per machine. There are ways round this, but they are a bit complicated and not for the faint hearted. On the other hand, the Windows version is usually more advanced because it has been released earlier.

In keeping with my previous remarks about using the best tools for the job, when it comes to authoring software, there are some tried and tested solutions that few can argue about. There are two Web page editors – Macromedia DreamWeaver and Adobe GoLive that find their way into most professional designers' toolkits.

For graphics, the same two companies provide FireWorks and Photoshop respectively. It can be argued that keeping with the same company's products gives the best integration and efficiency, but personally, I don't find that a big issue and you can mix 'n' match with few problems. If you are at all concerned about the quality of your graphics, avoid the low-cost packages. Good software requires good programmers. Good programmers don't come cheap.

When it comes to vector-based work, Macromedia Flash has a definite edge over Adobe's LiveMotion in most respects.

You will probably need other things too, a FTP client, a text editor, and things like that. But at this point, we have the fundamental software tools that every Web designer needs – a good Web page editor, a good graphics editor, a text editor for hand-coding or fine-tuning and a way to get the whole lot onto the server.

A good monitor is not just 'nice-to-have', it is absolutley essential for graphics work.

So now, we have an idea of the kind of software we are going to be running, let's look at the hardware that is needed to drive it. One thing that all these program have in common is that they have masses of floating palettes. To work with them efficiently, you need plenty of screen space. An 800 x 600 monitor is just not going to do and even a 1024 x 768 screen will be cramped.

Right at the top of my hardware requirements list is a dual monitor setup. My two main Macs have dual monitors. The one I use for Web work has a 17" and a 15" Apple LCD display. The smaller monitor holds all the palettes leaving ample clear space on the main screen. My other Mac is also used for print design work so it has a 21" Colorsync monitor, which is more colour accurate than LCDs, plus a 15" LCD monitor for palettes. Dual monitor setups on PCs are slightly more difficult, so my PC has a single 19" screen of a very high quality. If I only used a PC, as may people do, I would go to the extra trouble of having a dual monitor set-up. Once you have used such an arrangement, you will never want to return to the relative claustrophobia and frustration of a using single screen.

And, talking of duality, why is it that after all these years, Apple insists in providing a single button mouse that requires two hand to operate contextual menus? It's especially puzzling now that OSX supports multi-button pointing devices!

As for the computers themselves, Web design is not all that demanding on processor speed or huge amounts of memory. Okay, memory has become very cheap but the most processor-intensive work you are likely to do is a moderately sized graphic image with multiple layers - nowhere near the requirements of the high-resolution files needed for print.

So, instead of spending your last penny on the very latest, fastest machine, you could go for something more humble and pay more for the monitor(s). Monitors tend to be afterthoughts when buying computer systems but a good monitor is not just 'nice-to-have', it is absolutely essential for graphics work. Can you imagin a hi-fi system with cheap speakers?

The other accessories you are likely to need are things like scanners, a digital camera and some kind of backup device.

Take the backup device first. The ubiquitous CD writer is hard to beat and cheap to buy, as is the blank media. In the early '90s, my first Philips CD writer cost a whopping $6000, the software was $3750 for the Mac version and the same for the PC version. Blank CDs cost $30 each then. How things have changed! The important thing about backing up is that you have a sensible backup strategy. That means having at least two backups of everything, on a rotating basis, and never being more than a couple of hours behind what you are working on now!

There are loads of inexpensive scanners on the market. Although their results are better in quality than high-priced ones from a few years back, they can't take a lot of punishment and are virtually impossible to repair if anything goes wrong. A cheap scanner not only gives poor results, it will be slow. If you value your time at all, pay a bit more for a faster scanner that's more solidly built and doesn't need a lot of after-tweaking to get a decent image. Same goes for cameras.

If you do decide to use a Mac rather than a PC, you should be aware that the vast majority of surfers use PCs and you need to acquaint yourself with the differences in what you see on your screen and what the viewers see on theirs – different colors, different type sizes. You are not doing yourself, or your reputation as a designer, any good if you are working blind. Get hold of a budget PC, or a Windows emulator like Connectix Virtual PC to check you work in a 'real world' situation. The converse is true if you use a PC. Too many sites just don't work on Macs because somebody hasn't bothered to check.

If you find that you are often doing client presentations, a laptop computer is indispensable. It might be tempting to get a budget laptop because it is only used occasionally, bad idea!

The first time your client sees her new site should be a good experience - first impressions mean a lot. If you are showing it to her on a cheap and cheerful laptop, and making excuses for it, you are selling yourself short. Cheap PC laptops are cheap because somebody has cut corners!

Now, if you have the impression that I'm saying, "spend, spend , spend", let me set the record straight. A bad worker always blames his tools. An artisan always uses the best tools available. The best tools are seldom the cheapest, but they are not always the most expensive either.

Find out what other designers are using and happy with. See if you can try before you buy. Learn from others' mistakes, not your own. Make informed decisions.

In the end, it's not the amount you spend that counts, but the wisdom with which you spend it.

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